A few weekends ago I had an event with my family – always a treasure trove of insight and growth. Anxiety and stress, too. Before the weekend I was trying to explain to my husband why I was filled with such anxiety about the whole thing. I told him that I felt like I was trapped in a mine with my parents and sisters. I was the only one with a headlamp on – the only one who could guide everyone out. I was calling to my family, trying to explain how to get out, trying to direct them so that we could all be saved. But they weren’t listening. They were talking about other things, going in opposite directions, and completely disregarding what I was trying to do. And I was getting more and more agitated and frantic. I wasn’t going to be able to get them out!
That’s how I feel when I think about my family’s emotional health. It’s not to say that I’ve figured it all out and am better than they are in any way. But I have learned a lot about battling my depression, and I have spent several years in therapy, and I have made great strides in my own emotional health. So when I’m around my family and I’m seeing all of these unhealthy dynamics, I want to help. I want to explain to them how none of us have a real solid sense of self – that we’re all driven by what others think of us – but it doesn’t have to be that way. And my older sister doesn’t have to hate my younger sister so much because it’s only dragging her down and making her miserable. And my younger sister doesn’t have to put us down in order to compensate for her insecurity. And my parents would have a better relationship with each of us if they could support us and love us for who we are, instead of judging and comparing.
I want to fix things. I want to help. I have some good ideas about how we can make things better, and I want to share those ideas. I know that sounds obnoxious, like I’m superior somehow. I really don’t mean it that way, but I do want to try to make our family dynamics healthier. And that’s in large part because our unhealthy dynamics drag me down, and my family is a big source of my anxiety and fear of being judged. In my mind, if I can help my family to be healthier, that will be a huge benefit to me as well.
But in the end I feel like I’m trying to manage everyone. I don’t want my older sister to let her hatred spill out over the weekend, so that my parents sense it and get angry. I need to manage her feelings to prevent that explosion. And I need to manage my mom so that she doesn’t push any of the huge buttons that I know are issues for either of my sisters. And my dad? I need to manage him by showing him that I’m going out of my way to be helpful and friendly and behaving like he thinks a family should.
In the end all of this is exhausting and obviously there’s no time for thinking of my own needs – which are considerable when dealing with my family. Not to mention that all of this managing of my family shortchanges my husband and kids from having a version of me that’s as healthy as I can muster.
I’ve never been in the corporate world but I imagine this is how it might feel to be part of middle management. You can see the problems that need to be addressed, but you don’t have the authority or resources to address those problems. And people may not be receptive to your ideas since they’re not coming from The Big Boss. But in the case of my family, where there is no Big Boss, where does that leave us?
I guess it comes down to just worrying about me – which sounds terribly selfish, I know. But I can only control how I react, and how I manage my relationships with each individual. I can’t be trying to guide all of them out of the mine. I can just be thankful that I have my own little headlamp.